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How to Get Started with Benchmarking for Content Marketing

content marketing benchmarkingMost B2B marketers I know have a hard time keeping up with everything that’s thrown their way. Depending on the size of the company, they’re ultimately responsible for advertising, public relations, organizing customer events, writing and distributing press releases, editing case studies and white papers, and running the social media machine. Keeping up with competitors’ content marketing and thought leadership activities gets pushed pretty far down on their to-do list.

But it’s an essential effort, and here’s why: Failure to develop and maintain a comprehensive view of the content marketing and thought leadership activities in your key markets can lead to lackluster results from “me too” projects, wasted resources, abandoned initiatives, and squandered customer goodwill.

This post will show why content benchmarking is important and what it entails. I’ll go through how benchmarking knowledge can be used to create more engaging and effective content in my next post. 

Why is content benchmarking important? 

Before a company redesigns its website — another project that always falls to marketing — the team typically takes a look at both competitors’ websites and industry-leading websites to identify features and ideas to copy and build upon. These highly visible redesigns typically require a major amount of the marketing team’s time — and a major chunk of their annual budget. It’s only logical to find out what competitors are doing, what current technology capabilities are, the specific features that the market expects, and any other details that could make your website stand out.

In contrast, many content marketing initiatives skip immediately to internal content assessments, idea brainstorming, and execution plans without first taking a thorough and disciplined look at what competitors are doing in the same space.

As content marketing budgets grow, and more companies produce and promote their own content and thought leadership material, it will only become more difficult to stand out. Failure to consider where competitors are directing their resources before putting together your next content development strategy, before deciding on key themes, and before creating your editorial calendar, could doom your efforts to average or poor results no matter how good your content is.

What benchmarking entails 

Benchmarking describes a more or less formal process of comparing an organization’s performance (metrics) and practices with that of other organizations.

The first benchmarking priority for business leaders is to see how their company compares to its direct competitors in terms of financial results, such as market share, sales growth, and profit margins. The second priority is to compare some of the factors that contribute to financial performance by looking at operational metrics, like customer satisfaction and on-time delivery.

The next level of benchmarking is more qualitative. It looks at the practices that drive customer and financial performance. By comparing a company’s current activities to industry best practices — both within and outside of a company’s particular sector — the management team can develop a vision of what they think the organization will need to compete in the future and where, specifically, they think the company must perform better than its competitors. Then the team can determine the necessary investments to improve performance.

Best-practice benchmarking at a corporate level can take a lot of time and effort, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, especially if the work is outsourced to one of the major consulting firms (as it frequently is). Consider the IT organization of a global corporation with many operations and business units, and all of the systems, processes, and labor requirements that must be documented and analyzed, and compared to top performers. Such a benchmarking process often requires knowledge-sharing agreements, site visits to best-practice companies, and formal discovery reports — not to mention implementing the newfound practices.

Thankfully, benchmarking content marketing and thought leadership programs isn’t anywhere near as complex, time-consuming or costly.

Getting started with content benchmarking 

Benchmarking content marketing and thought leadership activity is the easiest intelligence-gathering exercise that you’ll ever do. Everyone wants their blogs and articles and videos to be viewed and read — that’s the whole point. Full access to every type of content that your competitors are investing in — white papers, case studies, videos, webcasts, podcasts, etc. — rarely requires anything more than providing basic contact information, if that.

Before diving into your market, however, a content marketing overview like the CMI B2B Content Marketing 2013 Benchmarks report can provide some useful perspective and context. This report offers an overview of what businesses are doing, the practices and tactics that are rising and falling in popularity, and it even provides a list of all the types of content marketing that you should consider tracking.

Be mindful of different market needs. The effectiveness of digital magazines might not be rated very high by marketers as a whole, for example, but such publications might be exactly what your potential clients most value.

As noted in the 2013 CMI report, the biggest challenges facing content marketers today are producing enough content and producing the kind of content that engages people. Looking at what other companies are doing, where they’re investing time and resources, and the specific topics they’re emphasizing will help identify what content has a high probability of engaging your prospects and customers, and achieving the targeted business objectives.

Who should you benchmark against? 

After acknowledging the need to benchmark, the first step is to figure out which companies and organizations you need to look at:

  • Direct competitors are the obvious companies to start with. Look at companies both larger and smaller than yours, as well as those that are similar in size. Company size usually equates to larger budgets, but not necessarily to superior quality or even raw output when it comes to generating and promoting content. Select a manageable number of companies to look at so the benchmarking project won’t get bogged down. Depending upon market sophistication, it will take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes per company to review and document their content marketing activity.
  • Trade associations, B2B magazines, and technical publications are some of the most visible content providers in most markets. One of the core values of these organizations and publications is to provide great content to their audience — your potential clients and customers — to drive membership and advertising. Their typical strengths are market visibility and content quantity. But many of these organizations have been gutted by market consolidation, advertising’s shift to the internet, and shrinking budgets over the past decade. This has created opportunities for independent companies to develop unique content that can stand out, such as primary research, which these resource-starved media organizations will even help publicize.
  • Similar organizations in completely different industries that are executing well can provide inspiration and great content marketing ideas to steal. Look for companies of a similar size (marketing budget) and organizational structure.

The benchmarking process 

Benchmarking can be a do-it-yourself exercise, or it can be outsourced to a third party that can provide valuable perspective and external validation. If you choose to do it yourself, setting aside a few hours a day over the course of a week or two should be enough time to benchmark a sufficient sample of key competitors and other targeted organizations. It’s even good practice to break up the work (which can be a bit monotonous), rather than trying to grind it out in one go.

Two key questions should guide your review process for each benchmarking target:

  • What exactly is this company doing? (quantitative)
  • How well are they doing it? (qualitative)

Document your analysis in a way that works best for your needs. A word processing file or spreadsheet will work fine, especially one that’s saved in the cloud for easy sharing and future reference. Will you need to present the benchmark results? Creating a presentation with a slide for each benchmarking target might be the right way to go. For a recent assignment, we created a basic web page that listed our client’s competitors and other market players, and then simply worked as a team to document their activities and our observations. Whatever approach you use, saving links to relevant content highlights will speed review when the team meets to assess the benchmarking results.

The content benchmarking exercise doesn’t have to document or chart every activity of every company. You are trying to create an overall impression of the content marketing and thought leadership activity in your sector. Examples of great content and best practices worth emulating — or not worth competing against — will be obvious.

Make the benchmarking process easy to replicate because you will want to take another look at key companies in six to 12 months to see what they’re doing new or doing differently. As with other competitor-monitoring activity, members of the marketing team can be assigned to monitor and report on what other companies and organizations are doing on the content front.

Take note: Many companies fail to remove their content experiments from the web, which presents a great opportunity to learn from their missteps. When looking at each company’s website, note what they’ve done in the past, in addition to where they’re currently devoting resources and promoting. What did they used to do that they have stopped doing? Was it any good? If they abandoned a blog, for example, and had been doing a reasonable job as far as quality and frequency went, maybe such an investment isn’t worth the effort in your market.

Next week, we will dive further into some guidelines for using benchmarking to find your best content marketing opportunities.

The content benchmarking process is always a little different for every industry and company. I’d love to hear about your experience. How have you gathered such intelligence and used it to guide content development in your organization or for clients? 

For more insight into tracking and measuring content marketing performance, read CMI’s how-to guide on Measuring Content Marketing Success.

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